When Saturday Night Live alumnus Christopher Guest set out to direct his first movie, The Big Picture, he had every reason to be optimistic. His film-industry spoof about a director trying to make his first movie had a good cast (including Kevin Bacon and Martin Short), the backing of a major studio president (David Puttnam at Columbia), and a small but workable $5 million budget.
But once the project was cleared to start production, the problems began. ''Two weeks later, Puttnam was out and Dawn Steel took over,'' Guest says, and the turmoil at the studio made The Big Picture an orphan. ''We were left alone to make the movie we wanted, but once we finished it, they didn't know what to do with it.''
Eventually, Columbia did open the movie in a handful of theaters, to mixed reviews. But because almost no effort was made to promote it, Guest complains, most moviegoers never even knew The Big Picture existed, much less had a chance to see it for themselves.
Until now. When The Big Picture arrives in video stores this week, it will, for all practical purposes, enjoy its world premiere in living rooms around the country. Guest says he finds it ironic that The Big Picture can now be seen only on the small screen.
The Big Picture has plenty of company when it comes to movies that were made for theaters but wound up going almost directly to home video (then usually to cable TV). Walk into any video store and there they are: hundreds of movies with interesting plots, handsome box covers, well-known casts and directors and titles most people have never heard of. Some, like The Big Picture, are the victims of Hollywood politics or botched distribution. Others simply died so quickly at the box office they never got a chance to open in more than a handful of theaters. (And some low-budget action and horror flicks were never really intended for theaters in the first place, but that's another story.)
In the first three months of this year alone, video stores have
been or will be hit with straight-to-tapers such as these:
Slipstream (MCEG/Virgin), a science fiction saga with Star Wars' Mark Hamill and Oscar winners F. Murray Abraham and Ben Kingsley
Blood Red (Nelson), a drama set in the California wine country, starring Eric Roberts and Dennis Hopper. Directee by Peter Masterson (The Trip to Bountiful)
Paint It Black (Vestron), a murder mystery starring Doug Savant, Sally Kirkland, and Martin Landau. Directed by Tim Hunter (River's Edge)
Little Monsters (MGM/UA), a teen comedy with Fred Savage and Howie Mandel
Me and Him (RCA/Columbia), a sex farce by German director Doris Dorrie (Men) and starring Griffin Dunne
Variety estimates that at least 68 U.S.-produced movies went directly to video in 1989 (up from 40 in the previous year), despite having had deals in place for distribution in theaters.
The trend has everything to do with economics. In many cases, studios will support a number of projects when they are just glimmers in producers' eyes, but can't afford to deliver all of them to theaters. Movies that are seriously flawed or seem to lack broad appeal are withheld from theaters or released with a minimum of support. A weak opening in New York or Los Angeles or a few negative reviews could mean a one-way ticket to Videoville even for projects with notable directors or stars.
With VCRs in nearly 70 percent of U.S. homes, the video option has become increasingly attractive to movie studios. ''A few years ago, without distribution in theaters, you were sunk,'' Variety home video editor Al Stewart says. ''Video changed the equation; now it's a safe bet that with just video and foreign distribution you can recoup a substantial proportion of your investment.''
For viewers, the straight-to-video alternative means trying to make rental choices without the benefit of the widespread reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations that usually accompany wide theatrical releases. Video marketers can entice viewers to rent movies that never saw theatrical release, but only, Stewart says, with the help of ''a massive hype job.''
Calling attention to these unknown movies in the video store brings out the artist in video marketers. ''If it appeals to a mass market with sex and violence,'' says Bruce Pfander, vice president of marketing for CBS/Fox Video, ''we will play up those elements through their promotion and on their packaging.''
CBS/Fox recently released two movies on video that had limited exposure in theaters: The Rachel Papers, with Ione Skye and James Spader, and Season of Fear, an erotic thriller with a cast of unknowns. The one with ''a sexy lady on the cover'' Season did better in stores, Pfander says.
Warner Home Video didn't have much to go on with a 1987 movie called Instant Justice, says Michael Finnegan, the company's director of public relatioos, editorial and programming services. They decided to spotlight star Michael Pare (Eddie and the Cruisers) and the movie's Top Gun-like angle on the package. It did surprisingly well on video, selling more than 40,000 copies, despite having never appeared in theaters.
In extreme cases, even a movie's name may change on the way to the video store. RCA/Columbia plans to trash the title of Russicum, an upcoming suspense yarn with Treat Williams, in favor of the more palatable The Third Solution for its video release.
For producers, actors, and directors such as Guest, having a movie go virtually straight to video is regarded as the blackest mark of failure. For viewers, though, especially those outside New York and Los Angeles, straight-to-tape movies can be a blessing. While most of these titles probably deserve their obscurity, video also provides an outlet for worthwhile movies that never found their way through the clogged theatrical distribution system. Though Guest wishes more people had been able to see The Big Picture on the big screen, he says now that ''if a picture is out of circulation and they see it on video, that's fine.'' Better the small screen than no screen.